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Julius Winfield Erving II stepped out into the sunlight from his car, removed his wire-rim glasses and squinted for a moment, letting his eyes—he has recently become slightly nearsighted—adjust to the glare. Looking down, he took the hand of Julius Winfield Erving III, and they headed toward the loading docks, where meat and produce were being carried onto dozens of heavy trucks that were standing shoulder to shoulder. Dr. J, a few days away from his 33rd birthday, and 8-year-old J had nearly reached the door of Norm and Lou's Restaurant when a big rig rumbled by and bleated noisily at them with its air horn. As the truck slowly rolled off toward Pattison Ave. in South Philadelphia, the driver hit his horn again and leaned out the window. "This is your year, Doc," he yelled, nearly squashing a Toyota as he did so. "Don't disappoint us again. This year the Sixers go all the way." He didn't say, "...or else," but he might as well have.
The playoff woes that have befallen the 76ers in recent years are a frequent topic of sour discussion in Philadelphia, and as Erving sipped a cherry Coke in the diner he asked, "Why is it that with us people always dwell on the past? That's where the interest genuinely is with our team, in talking about our past [failures] instead of what we've accomplished. We've taken so much crap that's unwarranted."
It's nevertheless true that three times in the past six years—1977, 1980 and 1982—Philadelphia has made it to the NBA's championship series only to be beaten in six games each time. The Sixers' regular-season record since 1977-78 has been the best in the league (327-136), and yet year after year the big prize has eluded them. "Somewhere along the line something always broke down," says Los Angeles Coach Pat Riley, whose Lakers handed the Sixers their most recent disappointment in the championship finals.
By last week, however, the question wasn't whether the 76ers were past tense but whether they would be future perfect. By defeating Denver by 21 points, Houston by 29 and New York by 15—in the process holding the Nuggets and Knicks each to just 38 points in the first half—Philadelphia ran its record through Sunday to 46-7, far and away the best in the league this season, and one that puts them on a collision course with history. No NBA team has ever won 70 games during the regular season, and the 76ers have an excellent shot at doing just that. The best regular-season record was achieved by the 1971-72 Lakers (who were also 46-7 after 53 games). They won 33 in a row and finished 69-13, surpassing the previous best record, 68-13, of the 1966-67 Sixers. Both teams went on to win championships.
Although these 76ers would have to play at a seemingly torrid .828 pace in their remaining 29 games to finish with 70 victories, that would actually represent a slight decline from Philly's present .868 clip. In the unlikely event that the Sixers collapse and become just another .500 team for the rest of the season, they would still finish with 60 wins, two more than they had last year. Moreover, the Sixers have an almost unheard-of 22-5 road record, including an astounding 11-1 against Western Conference teams. They've beaten the champion Lakers twice and have yet to lose two straight games; no team has ever gone through an entire season without losing two in a row. And the Celtics, in other years the 76ers' chief tormentors in the Atlantic Division, lay seven games back, a diminishing speck in Philadelphia's wake.
Surely the 76ers would not be so dominant this season had they not beaten Boston for the Eastern Conference championship in '82, after blowing a 3-1 lead in that series. Philly lost Game 5 at Boston and was embarrassed in the second half of Game 6 at home, where they were roundly booed. "I think the seventh game in Boston [which the 76ers won 120-106] helped us," reserve Guard Clint Richardson says in colossal understatement. "After the sixth, practically everybody had given up on us, and we had nowhere to go but to each other. It was a bad feeling and it hurt us, but it made the guys who were involved in that situation a lot closer."
In the championship series against Los Angeles, it was readily evident that although brotherhood is a virtue, a big man who can rebound is even better. Sixers owner Harold Katz decided to go after Houston's league MVP center, Moses Malone, who was a free agent, and when he got Malone for the tidy sum of $13.2 million for six years, the 76ers had the dominating center they'd lacked since Wilt Chamberlain was traded in 1968.
Malone, who led the league in rebounding last year (14.7 a game) and was second in scoring (31.1 points a game), quickly proved that he could also make the quick outlet pass necessary to trigger the Sixers' running game, get out and run on the break himself and close down the middle defensively with an occasional blocked shot. And, oh, how he can go to the boards. Last season Philadelphia's so-called Twin Towers combination of Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones had a total of 232 offensive rebounds. This year Malone got his 232nd in Philadelphia's 40th game, on Jan. 23 in Milwaukee, and he leads the league in rebounding for the third consecutive season, with an average at week's end of 15.7 per game. "I've said all along that the big thing about him is his consistency," says Philly Coach Billy Cunningham. "He doesn't have any off nights." True enough. Malone has been limited to fewer than 10 rebounds only once this year; he had six in 28 minutes in the Sixers' 120-102 victory over Cleveland on Nov. 26.
"When you lose in the finals," Riley says, "it takes a tremendous toll. You lose a little bit of your basketball life. They had a lot of guys who had tasted nothing but the pain, and that's bad. Getting Moses was the best move they could have made. It rejuvenated them. They went out and said, 'With Moses, we're going to win it this year.' You can look at them and see they're more committed."
"When we got Moses our minds changed right away," says Guard Maurice Cheeks, who is having the finest season of an exemplary career as a playmaker, despite the fact that his assist average has dropped from 8.4 last season to 7.4 through Sunday. "Having him here was an important thing for us psychologically, just as important as what he brings us on the floor. Every time we walk on the court now, we think we're going to win."